Sunday, March 8, 2015

From Selma To Buffalo: How to Distinguish between Real and Fake Educators Through the Lens of Black History by "Publius"

Today, I taught the most powerful lesson of my career. The original lesson was simple, but important: fill out voter registration forms. With the voter registration form on whiteboard, we filled out each section as a class. That was first period. Third period, when the lesson was introduced, a young man blurted the too often repeated canard, “Mister, my vote doesn’t count. This is not important.” That was the moment. Rather than launching into the long history of the struggle for suffrage in the US for so many groups, the students were told, “Leave everything here except your voter registration form. We’re going for a walk.” More on this later.

I teach at McKinley High School in Buffalo, NY. It is a vocational (aka CTE – Career and Technical Education) school. Our Principal, Mrs. Crystal Boling-Barton is a real educator. As teachers, we still have the luxury of signing many field trips permission slips throughout the year. We have the honor of collaborating with students, colleagues and members of the community to coordinate and host assemblies. It was difficult to maintain continuity in teaching during Black History Month, joyously, because of the numerous activities held. For one hour a year, every class participates in the “Teachable Moment.” Lessons focus on the role of African American in history, literature, science, math, arts, music and physical education or classes host a guest speaker. I work in a school I can walk my Senior class to the main lobby for a spur-of-the-moment change in lesson plans. Real educators create learning environments like the one we enjoy.

What is so great about the school climate just described is how these many events come together. The shop teachers take students to work sites, fish farms, construction sites, local businesses etc. Last week, students traveled to a program sponsored by a local college and featured activist, actress and film producer Aunjanue Ellis discussing her role on BET’s The Book of Negroes. Ellis also detailed her courageous, if not dangerous, cause to get the Confederate flag removed from Mississippi’s state flag. The students also heard from Ona Brown, a motivational speaker, who successfully made a students from across Western New York believe in themselves. Last year, our students met CT Vivian. All three speakers instilled a sense of confidence in our students.

When Lincoln was still at the theaters, the entire Junior class walked to the movie theater down the street. During the movie when the 13thAmendment finally passed Congress, our students cheered boisterously and clapped loudly. Yes, I was a little verklempt. When the school received thirty tickets to see Selma this year, off they went. These are the moments real educators create and that real educators cherish. They cannot and will never be measureable by any test. There is no metric for life, living and authentic learning.
Better yet, just before any field trip departs, students assemble in the auditorium and we are reminded of our collective responsibility to represent McKinley High School in its best and truest light. It works. Our students regularly receive compliments for being ‘such nice kids.’ Before we depart, the names of students whose grades or behavior are not what they should be are read aloud. Those students are sent back to class and those who have done what is expected board the busses. Students who skipped detention the previous day know better than to even come to the auditorium. Many students do not even bother to take a permission slip if they know they have not given their best efforts. That is how real educators educate. This is meaningful “accountability.”

We still have assemblies. The Martin Luther King Day “Keeping the Dream Alive,” Black History Month and African American History Quiz Bowl assemblies are held with some alternating regularity. Students, faculty, administration, security guards, aides, counselors, substitute teachers and members of the community all contribute. The year that an inspired faculty reading of the “I Have a Dream” speech synchronized, for a short while, word-for-word with the video projected on screen and above the stage of Dr. King reading the same was … pure magic. Again, high school students rose to their feet, cheered, clapped and celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream. It is not just Black History Month our school focuses on. Other assemblies held include Native American, Hispanic or Irish Heritage assemblies. Winter concerts are joyous affairs. Faculty beware, you will be called to the risers to sing a carol or two as a finale. Assemblies for academic and athletic achievement recognize our Honor Roll students and successful scholar-athletes.

Our students have listened to and talked with a Civil Rights activist who was a King family friend, a former student-activist and litigant in Brown v.Board of Education? Just this year, Carolyn Maull McKinstry, a survivor of the 16th Street Baptist Church, spoke with our students during the annual “Teachable Moment.” Every assembly has the same requirement: it must educate. Thanks to our Principal-Teacher, our school still hosts the types of events real educators know are important.

The learning environment described above is slowly disappearing from schools across America. Fake educators (self-proclaimed “reformers”) have wreaked havoc and destruction on public education. They call it “creative disruption.” Real educators, like Mark Naison of Fordham University, keenly observe this “reform” has systematically created “psychic violence” on and gentrification of urban neighborhoods. Yes, it is disruptive. No, it is not creative. Yes, it is destructive. No, it does not improve learning.

Fake reformers twist the language and heritage of Civil Rights to justify policies that create more inequality for the many while diverting millions of dollars to the few. They repeat their own scripted lines such as, “I was elected by the people to do a job; I’m here for the children; This is a Civil Rights issue.” In Buffalo, when those hackneyed lines are spewed, the public regularly boos these false claims into irrelevance.

Lest you feel pity for the Board member who is regularly heckled, know that he has sent emails laden with racist and sexist comments too offense to describe. He also recently asked an Board lawyer, an African American woman lawyer, “How could you be so ignorant?” when she was about to clarify a matter of Roberts Rule that would – and did – thwart his attempt to give away our best public schools. Huzzah for her!

This is also the fake educator who regularly votes to close public schools and to give public buildings away to charters for free. He also recently completed the paperwork that changed ownership of his real estate development company into his son’s name. VoilĂ ! No conflict of interest, he boasts! Only he and the Buffalo News believe it. He also derisively regularly uses the terms “Sisterhood” to describe the African American women on the Buffalo Board of Education. Kudos to those real educators as they have appropriated that name, thusly robbing him of his derision.

Fake educators wave their hand to evict a citizen-teacher, simply because he is a member of the Buffalo Teachers Federation union. They rudely disregard a student they purport to “care” about by texting during a passionate speech where, ironically, that student had just called out Board members for – you guessed it – texting during Board meetings. Fake educators use monies they voted to appropriate to companies they personally own and then use close to $100,000 for his personal car and dues to local supper clubs. Yes, I’m verklempt again, not the happy kind.
Fake educators spend five weeks in Teach for America training and teach for a short stint at a charter school. The same charter that once instructed a teacher to “ignore him until he leaves.” The teacher left instead. The student to be ignored was a child with autism in the fifth grade. Fake educators then become Commissioners of Education in the states that spend a lot of precious resources on education and arbitrarily lower scores, fail students and then blame teachers. Fake educators promise “death penalties” for “failing” schools, to “dismantle Buffalo public schools” and to “destroy public education.”

What are the results of this unrelenting war of attrition? Nationally, near catastrophic drops in enrollment to real and fake teacher training programs. Billions of un-accounted for taxpayer dollars. Widening inequality and a public school system that is more segregated than it was prior to Brown. Stress, anger, exhaustion, fatigue and everything that is bad for learning.

Locally, schools lose teachers, assemblies and field trips in order to test and test and test. This year, the “Keeping the Dream Alive” assembly was postponed twice. First, it could not be held on the traditional Friday before the MLK holiday because of English and Math Common Formative Assessments. The following Friday was out because of useless Post-Tests for half-year courses. It was held during February. Our assemblies were traditionally held in the afternoon. This year, they are held in the morning because our Choral and Instrumental (and Art) teachers were cut to half time. Thank you Governor Cuomo and the Gap Elimination Adjustment and budget cuts. Our students also lost a valuable opportunity to study in Buffalo’s last remaining African American History elective course. It too was cut.

Intentional or not, fake educators have implemented policies that have reduced faculty – too often, faculty of color - diminished arts and music and obliterated the study of Black History (and just about every other elective). Fake educators are everywhere and they do the bidding of Wall Street Hedge fund managers like dutiful vassals.
Fortunately there are real educators left who find a way to enrich our student’s educational endeavors. Unfortunately, most real educators cannot surmount the onslaught of “reforms” that systematically undermine public education for the many while, again, the few are enriched.

Back to that powerful lesson: When confronted again with the ‘my vote doesn’t matter’ response, we went to the main lobby. There, thanks to our sheet metal teachers and students, is a replica of the bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. More to the point: thanks to our Print Shop, there is a life size mural of the Selma marchers which is poignantly framed – if you stand in the right spot – by a replica of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The bridge is courtesy of our Carpentry program.

The students stood, voter registration in hand, in that spot. They were then asked to look at the mural and find a person who reminded them of someone they loved. Students who had seen Selma then recounted what happened when the marchers first attempted to cross the bridge. After the recounting of the history, there was a long, quiet pause.

They were standing in a historically recreated place where our sister and brothers, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers were beaten with clubs, trampled by horses and whipped. One by one, that look overtook their faces. It was the “aha” look. Deep. Contemplative. Ponderous. It is safe to say the importance of voting was permeating their consciousness. That look and that learning: they are the reason today was most powerful lesson of my twenty years in public education.

Electives, assemblies, field trips attrite as the deluge of testing and severity of budget cuts bulldoze forward. As we commemorate the 50thAnniversary of the March from Selma for voting rights, we must reflect on what has been gained and what has been lost. Our public schools are more segregated than they were pre-Brown. Millions of taxpayer dollars are unaccounted for or become profits in ‘public’ charters. Black History and teachers of color too, slowly fade from our schools. Thankfully, not from every school.

President Obama today argued that much has changed and that our work is not done. If that is to remain true, we must stop the destruction of public education and teachers unions. If we are to honor those who marched from Selma to Montgomery, we must now work to not only stop, but to also reverse this attack on the public education and on unions nationwide.

The legacy of Martin Luther King, Selma and the Civil Rights movement obliges us to act in defense of public schools. We owe it to our students. Our democracy depends on it.